Tag Archives: online game

Teaching Kids to Get into Interactive Debt

Next mealtime, expect your kids to pester you to take out a loan on a new Scion. They’ll probably have filled in the forms for you.

A month ago the NYT wrote about how a kids’ virtual world website, Whyville, was cutting a deal with Toyota to promote the Scion, allowing the youngsters to buy a virtual car in exchange for clams, the Whyville currency they earn by solving puzzles (read Heather Green’s piece over at BusinessWeek for a good overview of Whyville). If you’re having trouble following this, join the club: Think product placement in a kids’ version of Second Life. The idea here is that the 8–15 year olds who inhabit this virtual world would get all excited about the “small, boxy” Scion, buy it to zip around the virtual island and then start pestering their parents to buy a real one.

The idea worked. The NYT says that visitors to the site mentioned the word Scion more than 78,000 times. A month later, the term “Scion” has been used another 120,000 times and Whyvillians — the kids playing the online game — have purchased more than 1,200 Scions and gone on 140,000 rides in their cars.  As NYT quoted the chief operating officer for Whyville, Jay Goss: “By definition, this is a sponsor of Whyville that can’t have as its customers the kids who visit the site. But they know that kids influence parents, and kids grow up.”

Now apart from the general creepiness of how much the folks who run Whyville know about what their citizens are up to, and the extension of the old Pester Factor from kids urging parents to buy them toys to urging them to buy new whole cars, get this: As of today, they can buy a virtual Toyota Scion xB on credit, “learning in the process about interest rates, down payments, credit and leasing and their applications in real life”. This from a press release:

“Whyville Scion Solutions is a perfect example of motivated, engaged learning,” explains Dr. Jen Sun, President of Numedeon, Inc., Whyville’s parent company. “The Scions are a huge hit with our kids. They want cars! But most citizens just don’t have enough clams.  We’ve set up the motivation for them to learn what it means to take out a loan.  They’ll learn about interest rates, down payment, credit history, and, perhaps most important of all, being responsible.  If you default on your loan, you’ll lose your car, and your credit history will be ruined so that you can’t take out another loan.  Educators and researchers know that students learn best when they really care about the topic.  That’s exactly what we try to do in Whyville.”

This is all done via more product placement, this time by a virtual Toyota Financial Services advisor “who walks them through the loan process and helps them learn about their “WhyCO” scores.  The WhyCO is designed to emulate the FICO® in real life.  A Whyvillian’s WhyCO score depends on a number of factors including his virtual income, ownership of a Whyville house or business, number of log-in days in Whyville, and leadership roles in the community.  Based on these factors, a loan application is approved or rejected. Citizens who do not qualify for a loan by themselves can get loans if they are co-signed by wealthier friends. The Toyota Financial Services advisor will also point applicants to on-line resources to help applicants understand the details of financing, leasing, interest rates and credit.”

On one hand I applaud the idea. Why shouldn’t kids learn about buying on the Never Never, plunging into debt, meeting the Repo Man, getting thrown out of their house and generally living beyond their means? But is the idea of buying things you can’t actually pay for the sort of lesson one should be teaching kids? My grandad would be turning in his grave. But not for Whyville — in only a few days since opening, the Scion Solutions office has already approved several thousand loans — and not for Toyota Financial Services, which whose “interactive marketing manager”, Maria Tirado, says

“We’d like to have educated customers down the road, and this program is a terrific opportunity to help tweens understand the process of financing a vehicle, everything from interest rates to FICO scores to repaying the loan.”

Does this mean kids, now thoroughly familiar with the credit process, will now pester their parents to buy a new car with a loan? Is this the world we’ve been working towards?

How To Plug PR Black Holes, Or Steal A Rival’s Customers

Why have I become a Nokia Care Center? Because I wrote a nasty blog post about them a year ago, that’s why. In October 2004 I was not happy with the response of my local Nokia centre, which seemed very cavalier and, well, careless about the data saved on a customer’s phone. Basically, there was no straightforward way for the customer to save their data before it was wiped off during a Care Centre repair. Several angry customers were belatedly waking up to the implications of losing all their phone numbers and other personal data. This struck me as dumb and I wrote about it.

Big mistake. Not because I heard back from Nokia (I never did, as I recall) but because I heard from other customers, all seeming to have some problem with their Nokia phone, and, increasingly, assuming I could do something about it. Nearly 40 so far, which is not a huge amount, but more attention than most of my posts receive. This once happened before, when I wrote about Coca Cola doing some online music venture. It ended up being colonised by semi-literate gamers confusing the post with some online game. I appreciated the traffic but after the posts crossed the lines of vulgarity and legality, I figured it was better to pull the post.

Of course, this kind of thing happens because the comments start figuring in the search engine results, not just the original post, and then the page starts climbing the rankings. A search for “Nokia Care Centres” on Google puts me 4th, way above many Nokia corporate sites, while the U.S. spelling puts me 8th: only one non Nokia site is above me there, a complaint from an expat site in Singapore. That, coupled with all the other hopeful requests added as comments (usually along the lines of “Can u send me Nokia Care Centers in Bangalore?”, the most recent comment of less than an hour ago) push it higher up the rankings and make readers assume such previous pleas for help have been answered. They haven’t, at least not by me, but I’m almost thinking of setting myself up as a Nokia Care Centre.

The bigger question here is: Why is Nokia not monitoring this kind of thing and helping out these customers by either approaching me to post something helpful on their behalf (folks looking for answers should go to this link, or call this number, or send an email here, or whatever) or post a comment themselves to reach these lost souls? Surely someone in Nokia has noticed that their own Nokia Care Centres are getting bypassed on Google, as dozens of unhappy customers cry for help or vent their frustration elsewhere online?

Nokia, please pay one intern to trawl the web for this kind of black hole and the problem could be solved, and a PR blindspot fixed, in before it gets out of hand. (Then there are the rivals: Why has Motorola or Samsung not called me up and asked to advertise on this page, realising they could win over dozens of new customers frustrated by their Nokia experiences? No really, folks. I probably need to mull over the ethical aspects of dissing a company so I can woo advertising from rivals, but after that brief Mulling Period is over, I’m open to all offers.)